back to school time

Yes, I know, school started two months ago. But for me, it started today.

WP_20151005_09_50_31_ProFor the past three years, I’ve been a volunteer with Raise Your Hand Tennessee, a United Way-coordinated program which places volunteers in elementary schools to help with reading for an hour a week – either through one-on-one tutoring or working with groups.

I am a volunteer at Learning Way Elementary, in the class of looping first-and-second grade teacher Regan Aymett. “Looping” means she has a class of first-graders, then stays with that same group of kids the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back and starts all over again with a new class of first graders.

I volunteer on Monday mornings. When I first signed up for the program, I chose to work with groups rather than one-on-one (it’s completely up to you when you sign up). When I get to Regan’s class, she will generally break the class up into small groups, and I’ll work with one of the groups. The groups will rotate every few minutes, so by the end of the hour I’ll usually have worked with all of the kids. Today, I was listening to the kids at my table read from a little booklet. It was a fairy tale of sorts about three princes whose father, the king, turned them into bunny rabbits for misbehaving. One of the bunny princes escapes and falls in love with a beautiful princess, sort of a twist on the old Frog-and-Princess story. I would have two or three kids at a time, and each child would read a page at a time. We would rotate around the table. I was there to help with big or hard-to-pronounce words or names, of course, but the kids would also sometimes correct or help each other.

One things I noticed with several different groups today was that a child who would struggle while reading herself (or himself) would sometimes seem to do much better when correcting the child next to them! I’m not sure exactly how to explain this except that maybe they feel more pressure when it’s their turn to read. Regan, an NEA Master Teacher, could probably explain it to me, but obviously I never get a chance to ask her stuff like that when I’m in the classroom.

Because this is the second-grade year for Regan, most of her students this fall are the same students she had last year, and so I didn’t have to be introduced. The kids knew me. Because of the way the groups worked today, I didn’t get to see everyone, and Regan apologized to the kids who “didn’t get to work with Mr. Carney,” as if that were some sort of special treat.

New United Way of Bedford County executive director (and my former T-G co-worker) Pam Fisher, like Dawn Holley before her, waited to let school get started and things to settle in before calling the schools to place volunteers. When I ran into Pam at a news event last week, she told me that I could go ahead and start back for this school year whenever it was convenient for me and Regan.

New Learning Way principal Mary Pitner, whom I’ve known for years, happened to be in the front office when I signed in and got my visitor badge this morning and thanked me warmly for volunteering. But I told her it was my pleasure – every fall, I’m chomping at the bit to start up again.

If you’re in Tennessee, you can go to the Raise Your Hand website and find out more about how to volunteer. They’re very flexible, at least here in Bedford County, and can find a school and a schedule that fits you. You can, as I already noted, decide whether you want to work with a child one-on-one or with groups. United Way does a background check on each volunteer before placing them in the schools.

The final curtain

Well, the play is over, which is simultaneously the best and worst feeling in the world.

For weeks, I worked on my lines every day, worried that I’d never get all 300 lines memorized. Two rehearsals a week eventually turned into three a week, and then four rehearsals during “hell week” before we opened on the 18th.

And now it’s all over. I can delete the audio files from my phone, and go back to listening to music, or nothing at all, during my daily walk rather than listening to my lines. My schedule has suddenly gotten more open.

I’m tired; in some ways, I’m ready for it to be over. I won’t be auditioning for the Christmas play tomorrow afternoon; it’s hard for me to go straight from one production into another, although I know a lot of theatre people who do just that.

But I will miss it. This was a great role – the favorite role I’ve ever played, and it was the lead, which is always fun (but also adds some pressure). There’s nothing like being the last person out for curtain call. Even more important, this was a great cast and crew – I’d worked with most of them before. As most of us sat at Chili’s just now, unwinding from a week of performances, you could feel the mutual affection and admiration. I will miss spending time with these people – Martin and Dianne and Morgan and Amanda and Keith and Meridith and April and Joe and Cliff and Mary Ann and Randy and Anne.

And in a two-weekend production, there’s always the sense during that second weekend that we’ve just now gotten it right. You wish you had a few more opportunities to show the production off now that it’s been sharpened. But it’s got to come to an end.

I won’t know what to do with myself this week. I plan to get back to work on the book of sermons, devotions and essays that I’ve been compiling. Depending on how that goes, I may or may not decide to jump into National Novel Writing Month in November.

I’ll probably feel a little more lonely than usual this week. But I’ll get over it.

Harriett and Samantha

It was Harriett Stewart and Samantha Chamblee who, four years ago, first asked me to serve on the American Cancer Society Relay For Life committee in Bedford County. At the time, Harriett was our ACS staff partner and Samantha, a volunteer, was our local committee chair.

Since that time, a lot of things have changed — Harriett was transferred to another job within ACS and then ended up retiring. Samantha, on the other hand, ended up taking a job with ACS, and now she does what Harriett used to do for several counties in the area.

All of this makes it delightful that both women are now involved in Bedford County’s Relay once again. A reorganization of ACS territory means we are now one of Samantha’s counties. (Many thanks to our previous staff partner, Mackenzie Evans, who was also a delight to work with. Mackenzie is still with ACS and will be working with several college-based Relay events.)

Harriett, even though she lives in Lebanon, still has a special place for Bedford County’s Relay in her heart. When several of us from Shelbyville went to her retirement party a year or two ago, as soon as the people from other counties found out where we were from, they noted how often and fondly she spoke of the Bedford County crew. Anyway, Harriett will be working with us as a volunteer this year, helping to recruit sponsors for the Bedford County event.

Here’s Harriett, in the foreground, with Judi Burton, another known troublemaker:

A photo posted by John Carney (@lakeneuron) on

Both of these things were announced Monday night at our first committee meeting to start talking about the 2016 Relay. I think very highly of both these ladies and am looking forward to working with them in the coming year.

Technically, the 2015 Relay year has not ended yet. If you still want to give to this year’s Relay, you can do so between now and the end of the month. I’d be honored if you gave towards my participation.


I have a lot of lines in “Don’t Drink The Water.” I haven’t counted them; it’s probably not as many lines total as I had a few years ago in “Cash On Delivery.” But it seems like more, and in Act 2 I have several extended speeches. It will all work out, but at this stage of the game it always looks like a mountain to climb.

Monday night’s rehearsal was a table read-through, and I recorded it on my smartphone, making a separate file for each scene. I had to use Audacity on my desktop computer to clean up each file — taking out long stretches in which I have no lines, as well as cutting out parts of the readthrough where we got diverted. (We’ve eliminated a minor character, and so we had to reword a couple of lines referring to that character.) If I started out saying a line the wrong way and then corrected myself, I cut out the bobble (or else I might wind up memorizing the wrong word!).

I got Act 1 finished and loaded onto my phone Monday night, and so I was able to listen to my lines while doing my daily walk yesterday and today. Now, tonight, I’ve finished with Act 2 (and it’s a two-act play, so I’m done). Being able to listen to this recording is part of my strategy, and it’s worked well for the last few plays I’ve been in.

I think we have a really funny cast, and it will be fun to see things come together over the next few weeks. But “hell week,” and the production itself, will be here before we know it. I just hope I’m ready.

Cue at the Trib

From early April until mid-June, I was a temporary fill-in at the Times-Gazette’s sister newspaper, the Marshall County Tribune in Lewisburg. It was a fun experience. I’d worked at the same newspaper for my entire 30-year career (30 years this month, by the way), and so it was a new experience to go into a newsroom and a community where I really didn’t know anyone. The rhythm of a twice-weekly (Lewisburg) is also quite different from the rhythm of a daily (Shelbyville).

The Tribune hired a new editor, and I got transferred back to Shelbyville, during the week I was at Mountain T.O.P., so I never really got to say goodbye to the Tribune staff, all of whom had welcomed me with open arms (and a couple of whom kept making noises about keeping me).

Two of the Tribune’s reporters are about to head off to college. Ivory Riner has been with the paper for a while as she earned her associate’s degree from Columbia State. (Lisa Brown from the Tribune’s front office would sometimes have to remind her it was time to go to class.) Now, she’s getting ready to go west to Arizona State, where she will pursue a degree in broadcast journalism. (Never heard of broadcast journalism, but they tell me it’s a thing.) Madeline Lewis, the paper’s summer intern, will return to Knoxville, where she’s a student at the University of Tennessee. The paper had a farewell luncheon for them today, and it was the perfect time for me to head over and say hello (and goodbye) to everyone.
That’s Ivory in black, Madeline in white. At left is my high school classmate Becky McBee, who serves as business manager for both the T-G and the Tribune. Becky arranged the luncheon, which featured barbecue from Lawler’s. (If you are in Lewisburg, by all means get barbecue from Lawler’s.) She also had the idea for this cake:
It was fun seeing everyone. Jennifer Vendro was showing me photos of the new home she and her husband are buying in Hohenwald. Annie Stokes joined the news staff while I was there, and she’ll have to pick up some of the slack from Ivory and Madeline’s departures. The crowd even included some former staffers — Angela Brown left not long before I did. Jim Ward had already retired as the Tribune’s general manager before my temporary assignment there, but I dealt with him frequently when he was there and was delighted to see him, too.
I’m so glad I went over. It rained while I was there, or else I’d have been tempted to take one last walk on the Rock Creek Greenway, just for old times’ sake.

distilled vinegar, red pepper, salt

Well, I was looking for something to download for my new Kindle, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce in the kitchen prompted me to see if there was a book about its history. There was; even better, it was on sale for 99 cents, and since I had a credit on my account I didn’t have to pay a thing.

McIlhenny’s Gold by Jeffrey Rothfeder is not an unduly long book, and I finished it quickly.  But it was definitely a good purchase – an illuminating (and unauthorized) look at the McIlhenny family and how it built a hot sauce empire. The book is fair, but it’s a warts-and-all picture of the company’s history. Rothfeder does seem to have strong negative opinions about Paul McIlhenny, who was running the company — badly, Rothfeder believed — at the time of the book’s release in 2007. (McIlhenny died in 2013.) Paul McIlhenny got the post by ousting the only person from outside the McIlhenny family to hold it, an Australian named Vince Pierse. Rothfeder makes no secret of believing Pierse should have been given more time to pursue his aggressive marketing ideas, which might have increased sales without compromising the product itself. By contrast, the options Paul McIlhenny pursued for expanding sales were to introduce other flavors of Tabasco sauce – flavors without the flagship brand’s reputation for long aging and high quality.

The McIlhennys still on Avery Island running the company did not talk to him, although he talked to other members of the extended family, who for the most part did not want to be specifically identified.

The story is a fascinating one – Edmund McIlhenny, a former banker, found himself unable to resume his former success after the Civil War, and so he started a hot sauce business. There was a well-told tale about how he came up with the idea after a Civil War veteran gave him some seeds, but that story appears to have been baloney – another, apparently similar, hot sauce made with peppers from Tabasco, Mexico, was sold prior to the war, and seems to have been McIlhenny’s true inspiration.

Still, McIlhenny came up with a near-perfect three-ingredient recipe of peppers, vinegar and salt. The peppers are aged three years and then combined with vinegar. Since the late 1800s, the pepper mash has been aged in barrels provided to it by the Jack Daniel Distillery a few minutes’ drive south of me. The barrels are used to age whiskey, then sent to Louisiana and used to age the pepper mash.

Edmund McIlhenny’s immediate successor, his son John, was less successful. When John left to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, his brother Edward “E.A.” McIlhenny took over, and it’s his story that is really the heart of the book. Edward McIlhenny was a fascinating character and a study in contradictions. He naturalist who nevertheless imagined some dubious ways of cashing in on nature. He was in some ways a product of southern attitudes about race, and there was a definite caste system within the company, and yet on Avery Island he forbade segregated restrooms or other facilities. He created a “company town” on Avery Island which was a mix of good and bad ideas. He was a man of power and influence whose last years were marred by a corruption scandal.

A group from my church goes each year to the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) facility in Sager Brown, Louisiana, to do volunteer work, and their schedule usually gives them the chance to go and tour the Tabasco facility on Avery Island, a half hour’s drive away. I would love to do both those things, and will one of these years.

Anyway, this was a fascinating book. It’s a good parallel to another book about the history of a family-owned company, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World, in that it shows the difficulty of maintaining a family-owned business and its core principles as the generations pass, the world changes, and the ever-expanding circle of heirs demands profits from a company it has no working involvement with.

Highly recommended if, like me, you’re a Tabasco fan, and worth reading even if you’re not.

Happy Prime Day, or, Kindle me this

I am an accidental subscriber to Amazon Prime. When I reviewed Amazon’s Fire Phone for the newspaper a year ago this month, simply signing in to the phone with my Amazon account triggered the free year of Prime that Amazon offers as a benefit to purchasers of the phone. Even though I had not bought the phone — and, in fact, it was just a review model which I had to send back to the carrier after a week of testing — the Prime subscription remained.
It’s been fun to have free shipping and some of the other benefits, although I haven’t watched as many Prime Video offerings as I thought I would.
Fortunately for me, my expiration date isn’t until next week, so I was able to look in on the Black-Friday-like savings for “Prime Day” today.
Three and a half years ago, I bought the entry-level, $79 Kindle e-reader. I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it. I’ve read books — more books than I’d have read in that time without the Kindle — and I also have a couple of simple games on it for when I’m crashed on the couch. I just got through teaching Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality in my Sunday School class, and I had the book on my Kindle. I have several Bibles on my Kindle. I borrow Kindle books through the local library. The Kindle has been showing some signs of wear and tear — nothing bad, and nothing that really gets in the way of book reading, but it’s scuffed up some and the down part of the four-way rocker switch is now difficult to press.

So when I checked Amazon very early this morning (I had to be at the paper at 6 a.m., so this would have been about 5:45) and I saw the current entry-level Kindle on sale for $49, I jumped on it without hesitation. The current entry-level model is nicer than mine. It has touch-screen (something that wasn’t offered on the basic model three years ago), it has more storage, and I think it has higher resolution. Because of the touchscreen, it doesn’t even have or need a four-way rocker button.
Tablets are fine, and I can read books on my big new smartphone using the Kindle app if I need to, but a non-backlit e-ink e-reader is much better on your eyes and feels much more like an actual book. It’s better if you read outside (it doesn’t wash out) and it’s better if you read right before bed (there’s research indicating that backlit screens too close to bedtime can help keep you from falling asleep as quickly). It’s just better for reading all around.
Maybe I shouldn’t have spent the money, but being able to buy a $79 e-reader for $49 was too good a deal to pass up. Who knows when or if they’ll offer it again?

don’t drink the water

Attention, Middle Tennessee friends: I will be playing the part of Walter Hollander in a production of Woody Allen’s play “Don’t Drink The Water” Sept. 18-20 and 25-26 at the Fly Arts Center in Shelbyville.

The play will be directed by Martin Jones, a press operator at the Times-Gazette with whom I’ve appeared on stage several times in several different venues. Since this is Martin’s first time directing, Sue Thelen, who directed both Martin and me last year in “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” is assisting him.

It’s a very funny play, and I love my part – a role that was played by Lou Jacobi on Broadway, Jackie Gleason in the 1960s movie version, and by Woody Allen himself in the 1990s TV movie (which Woody also directed – he wasn’t involved with the theatrical movie and never cared for it, so the TV movie gave him a chance to remake the story his own way).

dontdrinkThe story is set in the 1960s in a mythical Communist country in Europe. The Hollander family – Walter, Marion and their daughter Susan – are “ugly American” tourists who cause an international incident when Walter innocently takes photos of something that turns out to be a military installation. He is accused by the local secret police of being a spy.

The family takes refuge in the U.S. embassy, but the ambassador is on his way back to the states and has left things in the hands of his incompetent son Axel (played by Michael J. Fox in the TV movie version). Between Walter’s bluster and Axel’s bumbling, things get worse and worse, and there’s some question whether anyone will make it out of the embassy in one piece.

Meanwhile, Axel and Susan (played by Mayim Bialik in the TV movie) find romance.

Father Drobney, a Catholic priest who’s been a refugee living in the embassy for years now, serves as a narrator, talking directly to the audience about the plot.

It’s all a lot of fun, I think we have a good cast (a few supporting roles still need filling),  and I can’t wait to get into the plot. I would love for any of you to come and see the production. You’ll be hearing more from me about it in the weeks to come.

Can I speak to Lily? Lily could probably have helped me

The most ironic words in the English language are “customer service,” a phrase many companies seem to reserve for the department which is designed to do anything but serve the customer.
I have my mobile phone service with a company which, to avoid them any embarrassment, I will call “BT&T.” My old smartphone has been acting up, and I felt like it was about time to get a new one. There was a brand new model about to be released, right in my price range, and with features I wanted, so I waited eagerly for the opportunity to purchase.
Finally, the day came. I got online at the BT&T website and placed my order.
Now, a smartphone is an expensive purchase, the type of thing that you normally have to sign for, and so I wanted it delivered to my office instead of my apartment. Fortunately, the BT&T website had a way to specify a shipping address during the order process. I thought I had done what I needed to do, but perhaps I missed clicking some final button — because, when I got my order confirmation, it specified that the phone would be delivered to my apartment, exactly what I didn’t want to happen.
I fired up the online chat feature of the site, and the first woman I chatted with insisted that I could change the shipping address from the website. But she kept directing me to the place where one would change their billing address. I didn’t want to change my billing address; this is a personal phone, not a work phone, and I want the bill to come to my home address, not my work address. I finally got through to her, and she transferred me to a higher-level chat person. That person was unable to help me, so they got permission to have someone call me on my (old) smartphone to discuss the situation. Again, the first person I talked to didn’t seem to have any of the answers, so she transferred me to an “order specialist.”
At this point, I’d been on chat and the phone a total of half an hour or more. I was at the office, and didn’t want my co-workers to think I was spending all day on personal business.
Now, here’s the funny part. The person on the phone transferred me to the order specialist, whom I could barely hear. I got up and moved to a quieter part of the building, but I could still not quite make out what the person was saying. I turned the volume on my phone up to the maximum, but still, nothing. I’d been able to hear the first lady fine, at a normal volume, but this person was just barely audible enough for me to know there was someone there, but not enough for me to carry on a conversation.
That’s right – BT&T, one of the biggest mobile and landline telephone service providers in the world, couldn’t give me an audible connection to their customer service rep — the fourth person with whom they had connected me (two on chat, two on voice). I finally had to just hang up.
I’m now resigned to getting an attempted delivery notice on my door from FedEx or UPS. At that point, I can call them and have them deliver the package to the office the next day. It will add a day to the process, but at this point an extra day’s wait is preferable to another 45 minutes on the phone with BT&T.

the rest of the year

It’s one of the curses of my life in recent years that three of the things I look forward to the most each year – the Nashville Symphony concert in Shelbyville, for which I’m co-chair of the organizing committee; the American Cancer Society Relay For Life in Bedford County, for which I’m publicity and online chair (and was just named volunteer of the year); and my annual week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry all fall within about a six or seven week period in May and June. This sets me up for a huge letdown once they’re all over with. I want it to be Relay night again. I want to be pulling into Cumberland Pines again (especially since there were a few aspects of this year’s AIM experience where I’d like a do-over). But now I have 11 months until Relay next year (and I’m not even sure if we’ll have a symphony concert next year).

I have no time to mope, however. Ever since April 8, I’d been on loan to the Times-Gazette’s sister paper in Lewisburg. I was still writing a few things for the Times-Gazette – county government stories, plus a few features – but my day-to-day work was at the Marshall County Tribune.

I found out while I was at Mountain T.O.P. that my sojourn is over and I will show up for work on Monday at the Times-Gazette. I will hit the ground running; we have some hot county budget issues, and we’ll soon start (if they haven’t already) working on stories for our annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration supplement.

I also plan to try out for a play next month. Martin Jones is a pressman at the T-G with whom I’ve appeared in several productions. (I played his father in “Come Blow Your Horn”; he played my father in “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” We’ve also appeared together in other things.) He’ll be directing a production of “Don’t Drink The Water,” with auditions next month and the actual production in September.

And I plan to continue work on the self-published book of sermons and devotionals that I keep talking about. I have been making some progress, but now that Relay and all that is behind me, I can get even more serious.

On a related note, I am already included in a new book of devotionals. In honor of its 40th anniversary, Mountain T.O.P. has published “Walk Down This Mountain,” a collection of devotions collected throughout the ministry’s history, broken down into sections by decade.

I knew they were talking about it and had even given them some of my self-publishing experience and pointed them towards CreateSpace, the firm I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel. I did not realize until I flipped through a copy last month that my “cast-iron skillet sermon,” which I adapted for use as a Holy Time Out several years back, was included. The Kindle edition of the book is now listed on Amazon, but the paperback still has a placeholder page. And I don’t have the direct link to the CreateSpace page. I will post all of that to social media once I get it.

So maybe I’ll be busy enough this summer to avoid the post-Relay, post-Mountain T.O.P. letdown.